Saturday, November 5, 2005


By Susan A. Clancy

Harvard University Press, $22.95, 179 pages

First, how can you not love a book that begins this way:

“Will Andrews is an articulate, handsome, forty-two-year-old. He’s a successful chiropractor, lives in a wealthy American suburb, and has a strikingly attractive wife and twin boys, age eight. The only glitch in this picture of domestic bliss is that his children are not his wife’s — they are the product of an earlier infidelity. To complicate matters further, the biological mother is an extraterrestrial.”

From this startling and unapologetically funny beginning, Susan A. Clancy leads readers into what soon becomes a very serious and respectful study of people who are absolutely certain that they have been removed from their familiar surroundings by non-earthly beings.

In “Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens,” the lead title of Harvard University Press’ fall catalogue, Ms. Clancy, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard, states quite clearly early on that it is not her aim to prove that these people were abducted — to the contrary, she does not believe these abductions ever took place — but that we can learn why these people believe that they have been. The study of this belief, unshakable in most cases, leads Ms. Clancy to make some compelling observations about recovered memory, fear, science, faith, reason, the human condition and, inevitably, aliens.

Ms. Clancy writes that during Will Andrews’ abductions (he has memories of being taken away several times), “he became close to his ‘alien guide,’ — a streamlined, sylph-like creature.” Although they didn’t communicate verbally, he feels they became ‘spiritually connected’ and their connection resulted in a number of babies.”

This is a book built on case histories such as Will’s. Ms. Clancy conducted lab studies of 20 “believers,” interviewed 12 in their homes or on the phone, and spoke to roughly 25 more abductees at conferences. She is moved by many of their stories, upset by more than a few, but the compilation makes for unusual and fascinating reading especially when combined with Ms. Clancy’s persuasive interpretations and explanations.

She sets out her game plan early on, stating that she will answer the following questions: “How and why does someone choose to study this phenomenon? What is the source of the abduction experience? If it didn’t happen, then why are all the stories so similar? If it didn’t happen, then why do so many disparate people believe it did?” And then she sets about her work.

To answer the first question, Ms. Clancy notes that she began studying people with recovered memories of sexual abuse but soon discovered that “I hated the controversy, and I hated being seen as a secret enemy of all those people who had shared their painful memories with me. But then a safer way to study the creation of false memories turned up.” Alien abduction.

After placing ads seeking subjects in newspapers “Have you been abducted by aliens?” numerous calls came in. Most of the calls were from local TV stations, radio shows, and newspapers curious to know why Harvard was interested in aliens. Some were from ticked-off Bostonians (“Doesn’t Harvard have better ways to spend all its [darn] money?”) A few painful calls came from Latin Americans who misunderstood the ads and thought we were looking for illegal immigrants abducted by U.S. border patrols. One call was from an alien. After the beep, there was silence. As I hovered in the doorway, the machine emitted a static-like sound, followed by about twenty seconds of punctuated atonal beeping. There was an eerie syntax, almost a cadence, to the noise, and it ended with a prolonged hissssssssss. It was no less creepy the tenth time I played it … .”

Ms Clancy is a witty writer, and that provides a pleasant counterpoint to what she discovers along the course of her research, starting with a phenomenon called “sleep paralysis,” an experience in which people wake up for a few moments and find themselves unable to move. Ms. Clancy writes that “About 20 percent of the population has had at least one episode of this type accompanied by hallucinations.” Compounding this phenomenon is hypnosis, a technique that people who have encountered the inexplicable often turn to, along with therapy. Trouble is that hypnotism, can make these people subject to suggestions that only compound their difficulties. Rather than providing insight into their experiences, hypnosis can add to their troubles.

One subject reports, “In my first energy session, I was asked to relax and was put into a trance state. What was weird is that I was expecting to see my grandmother abusing me and instead, all of a sudden, I see a ship hovering outside my window … I see creatures walking toward the house.”

So who are these abductees ? Ms. Clancy writes, “It depends. If I compare them to the well-educated readers of university press books like this one, then the abductees are about 1.5 standard deviations from the norm, on a continuum I’ll tentatively label ‘weirdness.’ But if I compare them to other groups I’ve had close contact with — serious vegetarians, yoga enthusiasts, artists, Hollywood actors, psychologists, Internet entrepreneurs, or my family — they really don’t look all that different.”

Ms. Clancy is particularly adept at showing how popular culture, particularly movies and television have influenced reports of alien abduction. She writes “[alien abduction reports] began only after they were featured on TV and in the movies. Abduction accounts did not exist prior to 1962 (UFOs did and aliens in space did, but aliens coming to Earth to abduct humans did not.”)

I have a friend, the soul of probity for the most part, who claims to have seen a UFO during the war. His wife, at a different time, saw something else that to her mind could only be explained as something from outer space. It could be that with enough research into those past events, some logical explanation might be found. Or not. But alien abduction Ms. Clancy’s writes, “is one of the possible plots that cannot be objectively verified … .” Alien abductions work really well because no one can say for sure that they didn’t happen, and questions like ‘How did you float through the door?’ or ‘Why didn’t anyone else see the space ship?’ can be answered with appeals to the aliens’ technological superiority.”

Alien abduction is clearly a maddening phenomenon. Nevertheless, Ms. Clancy soldiered on — for the benefit of science, the subjects and now her readers. And apart from some brisk and debatable observations about religion that pop up at the end, she has done all a service. This book is something else.

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